Spacecraft Deployments, SpaceX Activities, What Pandemic?

In about mid-March 2020, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 with a payload of 60 Starlink satellites. The first stage of the Falcon 9 had been launched four times before, making the March launch the fifth one for that stage--a first for SpaceX. The commercial mission was successful with the Falcon 9's upper stage flinging off all 60 satellites into a temporary lower orbit.

Cause for Scrutiny

As noted in “Troubled Landings, Mixed Roles,” all did not go well with the Falcon 9 during that mission. One of the first stage’s rocket engines appeared to fail. The engine failure may have led to the first stage’s failure to land, a second mission disappointment for SpaceX. Initial reactions from the company indicated it wasn’t surprised by the failure.

Even though the launch was for getting SpaceX’s Starlink satellites in orbit, a commercial venture, the reactions from NASA, a civil agency, and the U.S. Air Force, a military service, were also not surprising. In essence, both want to go over any and all data surrounding the failure.

NASA’s involvement is due to SpaceX being one of two Commercial Crew program candidates for flying people to space from American soil again--maybe as early as May. The USAF and new Space Force are interested because SpaceX was supposed to launch a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite in late April (that has been delayed).

Surprisingly (because there is a pandemic going on AND because it will have been less than a month since the failure), SpaceX is still moving ahead with its own launches. The company is currently moving ahead to launch another 60 Starlink satellites later this week. It can do this during a pandemic because it was designated as an essential service to the federal government and the DoD. While Starlink is a commercial launch, others have justified that launch with a “practice makes perfect” point of view:

"It's important from a safety perspective to maintain some level of rhythm in your cadence, Ketcham said, "If you're only launching at best every 18 months you're not really having your launching crew on top of their game because they're executing so infrequently."--Florida Today, April 2020

Both questionable justifications make it appear that it will take more than people “keeling over in place” for Starlink launches to be delayed (Blue Origin should be taking notes). Aside from this essential designation, there may be another good reason to go ahead with the launch--it could show NASA and the DoD that SpaceX has resolved whatever problem it was that occurred during the March launch. The fact that SpaceX has already publicly announced the launch indicates it is fairly confident the engine problem won’t occur again.

More than a Tesla but less than DoD satellite

However, if anything goes wrong with this launch, SpaceX will not have lost too much. It will have lost a booster that it’s already used a few times. It will have lost a brand new upper stage (and 60 satellites with it). While 60 satellites sound like a lot, especially in costs, it’s not. SpaceX has noted its Starlink satellites cost well below $500,000 each. I’ve seen estimates for those satellites costing between $250-350k each, so I’ll go with $300,000. Multiply that amount by 60 and we get--$18 million.

$18 million seems like a lot for you and me, but it’s almost nothing for a satellite payload--especially considering the total mass of those 60 satellites is around 15,600 kilograms. Compare the cost of those 60 satellites with that single GPS III satellite SpaceX will be launching sometime later. It cost the USAF/SF over $580 million for a single GPS III (page 46) satellite with a mass of about 3,600 kg.

The time commitment for building Starlink satellites is fairly low, too. The company has said it builds about 7 satellites a day, meaning that in less than nine days another 60 satellites would be ready for transport to the launch site. Lockheed Martin, the contractor for GPS III, takes longer for a single GPS satellite.

Essentially, just the manufacturing time and cost commitment for the Starlink satellites is probably a very small price for SpaceX to pay. If the launch goes wrong, while it’s worrisome, SpaceX hasn’t lost much (except that NASA and the DoD will be following SpaceX’s next actions much more closely). If the launch is successful (with a successful landing), it will have its reusable first stage, another 60 satellites on orbit, and possibly demonstrated quick resolution of a concerning issue.

Spacecraft deployment facts

For those of you keeping count, that would be 422 Starlink satellites the company will have managed to deploy once this next launch of 60 is completed. While that total is very far from the total of over 42,000 satellites SpaceX has talked about deploying, that’s still a lot of satellites when compared with the number of spacecraft the entire world’s space operators deployed annually.

In just this year (including the upcoming SpaceX launch), SpaceX will have deployed 300 of its own satellites in less than four months. If we include OneWeb’s two launches of 34 satellites each, that brings the total up to 368 satellites for 2020--just between the two companies. To put this in perspective, for the whole of 2013 the total number of SPACECRAFT (including rides to the ISS) successfully deployed by the world was nearly 220. Five years later, a record number of nearly 470 spacecraft were deployed. SpaceX and OneWeb have succeeded in launching 78% of 2018’s total in a little over a quarter of the time during 2020.

For 2020, a total of 403 spacecraft will have been deployed by the time SpaceX succeeds in its April 16 Starlink launch. Of those deployments from operators globally, about 94% will have been for commercial purposes.

SpaceX and OneWeb’s satellite deployments alone will have taken a 91% share of those 403 deployments. Such a significant share of spacecraft deployments so far seems successful, but it’s also a problem. Consider the current situation of OneWeb’s bankruptcy (discussed in “OneWeb's "Bad News" Friday”). The 68 satellites it deployed this year took a 17% share of all spacecraft deployments for 2020 so far. But now the future of those satellites is uncertain.

OneWeb has said it will continue some sort of caretaker operations with the 74 satellites it’s managed to deploy during the past few years. But a decision needs to be made about whether those satellites remain on-orbit or not. OneWeb has put deorbit capability in each of its satellites, so theoretically, if the company (or whoever becomes the satellites’ owner) chooses to deorbit them, they can--and about two years later (probably less), the satellites would be gone.

Will SpaceX find itself in a similar position? Like OneWeb, SpaceX has been moving forward with a confident voice. The launch of the next 60 Starlink satellites means that--at least according to SpaceX--the company has enough satellites to provide coverage for broadband consumers in North America. If the company starts offering services to customers in that region and provides the appropriate networking equipment, those steps may represent a chance that is the difference between following OneWeb or forging ahead.

If, however, Starlink becomes another LEO broadband casualty, that means that, including OneWeb’s satellites, 91% of the satellites launched early in 2020 might be deorbiting. Or, maybe it means the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Development Agency suddenly has its own, dedicated communications satellite constellation.